We’re closing in on The Diamond’s 35th birthday, April 17, 1985, and if you thought the facility would still be operational in 2020, take a bow. Not many folks did, given the many starts and stops of plans since 2004 to replace the ballpark on Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
The Double-A Richmond Flying Squirrels annually made improvements to The Diamond since their first season, 2010, which allowed the structure to remain functional and as inviting as possible. Now, finally, there appears to be a tenable track to a new stadium.
In the driver’s seat is VCU, first in line to take over the Virginia ABC headquarters property on Hermitage Road adjacent to The Diamond, continue acquiring additional properties in the area, and build a ballpark, shared by the Flying Squirrels. The stadium would be part of the school’s projected Athletics Village, expected to include other facilities for the Rams.
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That may be four or five years away. The Diamond, built in eight months for $8 million, may live to age 40. Before it officially reaches 35, how about a retrospective, replete with proposals to replace it?
1985 On opening night 1985, a crowd of 12,435 filled The Diamond for the game between the Triple-A Richmond Braves and the Syracuse Chiefs. Eight times that season, the crowd was more than 10,000. The exhibition with the Atlanta Braves drew 13,403. The R-Braves, in town since 1966, set an attendance record for a season, 368,856, third best in minor league baseball. Henrico and Chesterfield counties paid for half of The Diamond’s construction cost, and private funds covered the other $4 million.
2000 Exterminators were hired to address The Diamond’s problem with rats. Some appeared in the visitors’ dugout during games.
2000 The Atlanta Braves, who owned the Triple-A franchise, began suggesting that The Diamond needed improvements. They focused on expanded clubhouses, and the additions of batting cages and a fitness area for the benefit of their minor leaguers.
2003 A football-sized piece on concrete fell from The Diamond’s roof into stands during a Sunday afternoon game. No one was hurt.
2003 Richmond and Henrico and Chesterfield counties supported an $18.5 million renovation of The Diamond. It was to include the addition of lower-level seating and concession areas, a reduction of the upper deck, an outfield berm, installation of box seats, construction of an open-air concourse, renovation of clubhouses and public restrooms. Construction was scheduled to start in September 2004.
2004 Renovation of The Diamond was postponed, as City Manager Calvin Jamison advocated a $58 million ballpark project in Shockoe Bottom. Behind the project, which would also involve related development, was the Richmond Ballpark Initiative. The plan faded, primarily because of financing concerns.
2004 Poor field drainage forced games postponements and changes of venues in August. The R-Braves lost 15 home dates. No other International League club lost more than six.
2004 A state aviation official with development experience, Charles S. Macfarlane, proposed a $40 million, 7,500-seat ballpark for Mayo Island. One of Richmond’s minor league teams, the Colts, played on Mayo Island from 1921 to 1941. Other informal proposals included a ballpark in Manchester, off Interstate 295 in Henrico County, and near where Interstate 95 runs by The Diamond. None matured.
2005 The R-Braves and Global Development proposed a $330 million live-work-play village, including a ballpark, in Shockoe Bottom. The Diamond, reduced in size, would have been repurposed as the centerpiece of a sportsplex for VCU baseball, a VCU tennis center, and other venues for high school competition. The plan never gained traction.
2006 Mayor L. Douglas Wilder proposed that a ballpark be built at the old Fulton Gas Works in the city’s East End. That idea failed to gain even limited support.
2008 The Braves announced that their Triple-A franchise would be moving to Gwinnett County, Ga., following the 2008 season, because of the organization’s dissatisfaction with The Diamond. No Triple-A franchises were available to move to Richmond. Randy Mobley, president of the Triple-A International League, said: “If there were a facility [in Richmond] that the Atlanta Braves and the International League found acceptable, we would never have left. Leaving Richmond had zero to do with the market. In our humble opinion, we think Richmond is a fine baseball market.”
2008 Opening Day Partners wanted to transform The Diamond with a $28 million renovation that would make it a venue for baseball and other community activities. Plan included removal of concrete upper deck. It was not seriously considered.
2008 Local businessman Bryan Bostic led a group interested in buying a baseball franchise and moving it to Richmond. He supported a $318 million downtown project, Shockoe Center, which included a $60 million ballpark. Highwoods Properties, which was behind the development project, withdrew the plan amid questions about its feasibility.
2009 In the midst of The Great Recession, Bostic’s group, Richmond baseball Club LLC, failed to raise the money necessary to purchase a Double-A franchise it was pursuing (Connecticut, of the Eastern League).
2009 Eastern League President Joe McEacharn pledged to Mayor Dwight C. Jones that one of the Double-A league’s 12 franchises would relocate to The Diamond for 2010 season. That turned out to be Connecticut, a San Francisco Giants’ affiliate, which maintained its ownership group. “It’s unanimous throughout the league that Richmond has probably the greatest opportunity to be the crown jewel of the Eastern League,” McEacharn said.
2009 The Connecticut franchise officially shifted to Richmond and The Diamond in September. “Flying Squirrels” was the winner in a name-the-team contest.
2010 The Diamond’s capacity was reduced from 12,134 to 9,560 with advertising banners covering upper-deck seating areas. The Flying Squirrels invested about $2 million in upgrades, including folding seats in lower level, where aluminum bleachers had been.